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Tau Ceti a Star for Life to Avoid

Tau Ceti, a star with a dust disk astronomers had hoped might be an example of a planetary system under construction, is more like a war zone.  A press release from the Royal Observatory calls it “Asteroid Alley – an Inhospitable Neighbor.”  Using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, the astronomers detected 10 times […]

Mystery of the Left-Handed Proteins: Solved?

Some molecules come in left- and right-handed forms that are mirror images of each other.  All biological proteins are composed of only left-handed amino acids.  How this could have come about in a primordial soup has long been a puzzle to origin-of-life researchers, since both L (levo, left-handed) and D (dextro, right-handed) forms react indiscriminately.  […]

Young Planet Around Young Star Claimed

A star estimated to be one million years old already has a planet in orbit around it, the Spitzer Space Telescope (Hubble’s counterpart for infrared astronomy) has found.  Astrobiology Magazine says this challenges old theories.  Alan Boss (Carnegie Institute) thinks this supports his disk-instability model for planetary formation, in which gas giants can form quickly, […]

Origin-of-Life Researcher Leslie Orgel Interviewed

The May 4 issue of Current Biology1 contains an interview with organic chemist Leslie Orgel of the Salk Institute, who in 1974 published the book The Origin of Life on Earth with Stanley Miller of spark-discharge fame (see 05/02/2003 and 10/31/2002 headlines).  He considers his biggest mistake not thinking of the RNA World scenario first […]

Minimal Cell Modeled in Computer

“The basic design rules relating the regulation of cellular function to genomic structure is of broad interest,” begin three Cornell microbiologists writing in PNAS,1 and so they have turned their attention to the smallest theoretical living cell: A �minimal cell� is a hypothetical cell possessing the minimum functions required for sustained growth and reproduction in […]

Swamp Gas Found on Mars

The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter has confirmed earlier detections of methane in the Martian atmosphere, according to the BBC News.  Because methane could only exist in the atmosphere for a few hundred years, there must be a source that replenishes it.  Two sources have been proposed: active volcanos, or living organisms.  The BBC […]

Much Ado About Nothing

How much can you say about nothing?  Some people can say quite a lot.  One astrobiologist just wrote a large book about it: Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life by David Grinspoon (Harper Collins, 2003).     Larry R. Nittler reviewed this new book in the March 12 issue of Science.1  Nittler describes […]

How to Get a Genetic Code by Chance

The Feb. 17 issue of Current Biology1 has a Q&A magazine feature on the genetic code.  After dismissing some myths about it being universal, consisting of only 20 amino acids and obligated to only three codons (there are some minor exceptions to these mostly-true principles: see 04/30/2003), the authors tackle the big question: where did […]

Scientists Probe Differences Between Living and Nonliving Chemicals

“All life forms are composed of molecules that are not themselves alive.  But in what ways do living and nonliving matter differ?  How could a primitive life form arise from a collection of nonliving molecules?”  Any article beginning with questions like that is bound to be interesting.  That’s how Rasmussen et al. tantalized readers of […]

Comets as Cosmic Storks

Chandra Wickramasinghe and colleagues at Cardiff University have raised the bar on tale-telling ability.  They believe that comets splatting on earth can carry away germs of life that gradually spread farther and farther out, eventually escaping the sun’s pull.  Over time, they might spread life to other worlds.  They estimate that since the origin of […]

Proof of Life in Martian Meteorite Alleged – Again

Some Aussies are trying to scoop the Mars prize, it seems from a headline in the down-under Daily Telegraph.  While two American rovers are busily sniffing about for evidence of water (as a prerequisite for life) on opposite sides of the surface of Mars, the Australians are saying, “No worries, mate,” they already found Martian […]

Early Oxygen Causes Evolutionary Gasps

The rise of oxygen in the primitive Earth’s atmosphere has been pushed back 100 million more years, according to Sid Perkins writing for the Jan. 24 issue of Science News.  This is based on studies of sediments in South Africa.  Though estimated at just a millionth of today’s concentrations, the finding comes as a surprise.  […]

Did Borax Evolve Into 20-Mule Teams?

You’re dating yourself if you remember the old TV western Death Valley Days, and its commercials about 20-Mule Team Borax.  (Mule teams actually did pull loads of borax from Death Valley to Mojave, quite a feat in those days, but that’s another story.)  In modern times, though, borax has made science news as a possible […]

Must Life Drink Water?

Star Trek used to portray aliens made up of different stuff than the carbon and water chemistry which comprises Earth-based life.  For years, most scientists who considered the possibility of life in space, including Carl Sagan and Stanley Miller, admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that the periodic table of the elements admits no practical alternatives to water […]

Photosynthesis Began a Billion Years Earlier Than Thought

According to the BBC News, some scientists have pushed back the evolution of photosynthesis a billion years earlier than previously believed, to 3.9 billion years ago.  This is based on uranium-thorium ratios of rocks in Greenland that led Danish researchers to conclude that they were deposited under oxidizing conditions.  Others are not sure the data […]
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